While a call to send back the document, Challenge, Opportunity and Responsibility, to be rewritten was narrowly defeated by 13 votes, the criticisms constitute the second warning from the grass roots in two days. On Sunday, an anti- Labour backlash erupted, making life difficult for Mr Ashdown, who wants to foster co-operation with the party.
Earlier yesterday, the membership also defied the leadership and MPs as it decided to make abortion a party policy issue, leading the outspoken anti-abortionist David Alton, MP for Liverpool Mossley Hill, to say he would not fight future elections as a Liberal Democrat. The conference approved a motion calling for equal access for a legal abortion under the NHS within 14 days of requesting one.
The policy paper's near-defeat was played down by Lord Holme, the policy committee's vice-chairman, as the party exercising new freedom now that an election no longer loomed. But its reception by speakers as 'shoddy and ill- prepared', lacking in philosophy, 'remarkably timid', too right- wing and 'boring' will disappoint Mr Ashdown, who launched it last week as the policy arm of his 'pluralist politics' strategy which aims to involve people outside the main stream.
Sarah Ludford, a local councillor and one of a team who helped Mr Ashdown draft it, told representatives: 'This paper represents continuity in the basic principles to which we subscribe. Its novelty is in applying these principles to new challenges and in asking tough questions.' The most important sentence read: 'The central requirement is the empowerment of responsible individuals.'
She was met with a barrage of criticism as speakers denounced it for failing to include sections on education or housing, for over- emphasis on the benefits of the free market, an alleged anti-union stance and lack of commitment to the concept of full employment.
Of the abortion vote, Mr Alton said afterwards: 'Parties make policies on issues such as this at their peril. It will rightly alienate countless people who will never vote for, join or stand for a party which removes the (doctors') right of conscience on this issue.'
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